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Top-heavy localities try to bottom out

It's not easy being lean.

Witness the communal angst that has come with decisions to downsize hospitals, churches and libraries. The same people who say that state taxes are killing upstate New York will happily stand at a podium and insist that even though their (insert local institution here) is half-empty and/or losing money, it should remain open and the government should help.

But some local governments -- with a huge assist from voters -- have begun to set an example by reducing their numbers.

Buffalo came first in 2002 when voters overwhelmingly approved the move from a 13-member Common Council to the current nine. Then two suburbs followed suit: Town of Tonawanda residents voted to drop two members from their seven-member board, a change that will take effect next year. And last month, Depew voters not only voted out every incumbent on the village ballot, they also agreed to cut the Village Board from seven to five members, starting in 2009.

Barbara Alberti is making history twice in Depew: On Monday, she became the village's first female mayor while also becoming the last who will work with six Village Board members.

"Every place we went, every home we walked [into], the word was change; they wanted change completely, and I think that starts with the size of the Village Board," Alberti said.

Depew had tried twice before to experience some government shrinkage, but each time the Village Board refused to put it to a public vote. The board relented, and the public responded, voting by a 9-1 ratio to eliminate two trustee spots.

Alberti said the reduction was her top priority.

"It was important to downsize," she said. "Our population has diminished some, . . . and we didn't feel there was a need for six trustees any longer."

The only suburbs left in Erie County with more than five members on their policymaking boards are Amherst and Cheektowaga. Neither has expressed any interest in downsizing, but a Cheektowaga resident last week asked her elected leaders to think about it.

In a letter to the town, Patricia M. Levorchick noted that Cheektowaga is bleeding population while more residents are struggling to pay the bills. Cutting two seats on the Town Board would save about $40,000 in salary alone.

The number of elected officials in a community shouldn't necessarily be tied to its population. If that were the case, even if tiny Farnham -- population roughly 300 -- reduced its Village Board from five members to three, Amherst could argue that it should have 110 members on its Town Board.

And those meetings are long enough with seven members.

There is such a thing as a three-member board. The town and village of Cherry Valley, near Cooperstown -- total population 1,266 -- manage with three members each, for example.

Would that work here? Hamburg Supervisor Steven Walters thinks it could. But he had to know that his idea earlier this year to reduce that Town Board from five members to three would be dismissed by the people who outnumber him 4-1 on the board and often vote that way. But he said he was serious.

"I really feel if the board can operate with three people or four people rather than five people, it is a step that we should go to," he said. "We're asking other departments to downsize and to work with less, and I think it's only fair that the legislative authority looks to see if it can work with less."

The last part of that sentence sounds like the makings of a new government motto: It can work with less.


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